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Two years after legalisation, access to safe abortion still elusive for Thai women

Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories
February 7, 2023 - Nonthaburi, Thailand. Members of Tamtang, a volunteer-based group who give advice about safe abortion and advocates for abortion rights stage a protest at the Minstry of Health in Nonthaburi. Photo: Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

BANGKOK – Despite the legalisation of abortion in Thailand two years ago, access to free and safe abortion services remains a challenge for women in the country, according to the rights group Tamtang.

Yesterday (7 February 2023), pro-choice networks led by Tamtang, a volunteer-based group that provides advice on safe abortion, called on the Ministry of Public Health to fully implement the law passed by parliament in February 2021.

In a symbolic Buddhist-based ritual held in front of the Ministry, the network poured water in dedication for those who have lost their lives due to unsafe abortions and called for the elimination of bias among medical staff.

 

A symbolic law?

Abortion has long been a contentious issue in Thailand, where most people follow Buddhism. This religious affiliation has contributed to a cultural perspective that values the sanctity of life and advocates for abstaining from sex before marriage. Despite legalising abortion in 2021, the lack of enforcement has left the new law largely symbolic in the Royal Gazette.

According to the network, less than 100 public health facilities out of the 1,300 in the country provide abortion services, with coverage limited to only half of Thailand’s provinces. Bangkok, which has the highest demand for such services, does not have a public facility for abortion. This has resulted in women seeking abortions having to travel 140 km or turn to private hospitals, which can cost twice as much.

 

High costs

The network said that more than 60 percent of women seeking abortions cannot afford the cost, which can reach up to THB 3,000 (USD 89) for a pregnancy less than 12 months. Thailand cut financial support for abortions from social security in December 2022.

May, a young woman accompanied by her boyfriend, spoke about her experience seeking an abortion in Thailand. Despite the legalisation of the procedure, she expressed concern and fear about accessing safe services. “Even though abortion is now legal in Thailand, I was still worried about finding a place that would perform the procedure and whether I would be turned away,” she said.

 

Honouring lives lost: Pro-choice network holds symbolic Buddhist ritual in front of Ministry, pouring water in dedication for victims of unsafe abortions. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories


Tamtang found that many hospitals have denied women access to abortions due to their Buddhist beliefs and that medical staff often transfer cases to private hospitals. Additionally, many facilities require teenagers to obtain permission from their guardians, despite the law allowing women over the age of 15 to make their own decisions about abortions.

“Now no one should die because of abortion,” said Sulaiporn Chonwilai, a researcher at Tamtang. “If they have health risks from it, they could go to the emergency ward at the hospital and no one can turn them down.” 

The network calls on the Ministry of Public Health to set up at least one public facility to provide the service, inform the public and eliminate bias among the medical staff. A representative of the Ministry received an open letter from the network and assured them to follow up on the issue.